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Essay – Michael Sweerts – A young maidservant

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Essay - Michael Sweerts - A young maidservant

This extraordinary depiction of a young girl is undoubtedly one of Michael Sweerts’s most beautiful works. She is dressed simply in a brown bodice of rather coarse, stiff material with, beneath it, a white linen blouse with a collar edged with a thin strip of lace. Her brown curly hair is tied back and covered with a white cloth or cap, which peeks out in various places. Straight pins have been stuck into her bodice, indicating that she is a seamstress or maidservant. Her body faces left, but she looks over her shoulder to the right; despite this, there is almost no sense of movement. Her slightly inclined head, raised eyebrows and large dark eyes instead combine to give her a dreamy look, as if she is lost in thought.

An aura of mystery surrounds Sweerts, a result not only of the paintings themselves, but also of his biography.1 He was born in Brussels but spent a great deal of his life in Rome, where he certainly resided from 1646-55. He then returned briefly to his native city, where he founded an academy of drawing. Around 1660 he joined the Société des Missions Etrangères, a group of missionaries dedicated to the spread of Christianity in the Far East. While preparing the journey to the Far East Sweerts spent several months in Amsterdam in 1661, although perhaps already in 1660. In December 1661 he was in Marseilles and in January his ship departed for Palestine, where he was expelled from the mission for misconduct. Nothing is known about the last two years of his life. In the Société’s archives we find mention only of his death in 1664 in Goa, then a Portuguese colony in India. Sweerts developed his painting style while in Rome. In addition to portraits, he also painted scenes of everyday street life in the manner of the so-called Bamboccianti. His pictures are characterised by a strong contrast between the primarily dark, summarily painted background and the main motif, which is generally strongly lit and more carefully executed. Another hallmark is the great calm and almost classical dignity his work emanates, despite the low subject matter.

A young maidservant belongs to Sweerts’s series of paintings depicting single figures in half-length. Some of these are charming portrayals of children, such as the famous Boy with a hat in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, others are of adults, for example the almost photo-realist image of a woman in The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (fig. 1).2 These are not portraits in the conventional sense, although they are very likely based on living models. One can probably best describe them using the seventeenth-century term tronie, i.e. a study of a head intended to represent a certain character or type.

A young maidservant is larger than Sweerts’s other tronies, although stylistically it undoubtedly belongs to the group. Typical is the pale pink, almost powder-like rendering of the skin, which stands in sharp contrast to the thick daubs of paint used to indicate the highlights, for example, in the eyes, the white cloth in her hair and the patch of light on her shoulder. Sweerts’s tronies must have been painted in Brussels or Amsterdam, i.e. between 1655 and 1661.3 Because the subject matter is so close to Dutch genre painting, for example those of Pieter de Hooch (cat. no. 29) and Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), it is generally assumed the Young maidservant was painted in Amsterdam and thus around 1660.

One of the paintings with which Sweerts’s Young maidservant has been compared is the Girl with a pearl earring, which Vermeer would paint some five years later (fig. 2).4 Both are focused images of young girls, depicted with a typical mixture of realism and idealisation. But there are also a number of differences. Vermeer’s composition is more compact, his use of yellow and blue is more daring and the light reflections are even subtler. Moreover, Vermeer’s young girl is attired with an exotic turban and a pearl earring that is far too big to be real, while Sweerts shows us his figure just as she is, a simple maidservant. The fact that we can here almost literally make the acquaintance of someone of the working class, never depicted in ‘straight’ portraits, makes the painting that much more special.